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Family circumstances see children denied bail, report reveals

Dechlan Brennan -

A disturbing lack of accountability and transparency around a fragmented youth justice system are just some of the findings in a report into the use of watch houses by the Queensland Family and Child Commission (QFCC).

The review, which seeks to understand why young people are being detained longer in watch houses, also noted children are being denied bail, as well as being held in an adult facility, because they don't have safe accommodation, or come from a dysfunctional family.

It found reporting across courts, youth justice and policing was "inconsistent" and "not transparent." This was only complicated by a myriad of ten oversight bodies, all with "discrete responsibilities" around child welfare.

There was also a lack of collaboration between these agencies, with "no documented accountability for a child."

The review also highlighted a "particularly significant level of over‐representation" of Indigenous children that have been overtly affected by Queensland's policy of keeping children in the adult watch houses.

Queensland has continually kept children in these facilities due to understaffing and youth detention facilities operating above a safe capacity. In August, the state suspended its human rights act in order to house children in adult watch houses.

Data shows detention of children in watch houses of five to seven days increased 78 per cent between 2019 and 2022 and part year data for 2023 showed 108 detentions in watch houses lasting more than two weeks.

"Queensland detains children at a higher rate than any other Australian jurisdiction, which has challenged the capacity of detention centres and caused an over-reliance on watch houses," the report said.

QFCC Principal Commissioner Luke Twyford said adult watch houses were inappropriate places to hold children, and only led to further issues in the future.

"Watch houses are not appropriate places to hold children, potentially exposing them to violent and anti-social adult behaviour, which is harmful, re-traumatising and does not reduce the likelihood of reoffending," he said.

"We also know that First Nations children are 21 times more likely to be held in youth detention in comparison with non-Indigenous children, meaning Queensland's increasing use of watch houses is grossly and disproportionately affecting First Nations children."

The QFCC identified six key factors behind Queensland's increasing reliance on keeping children in adult watch houses.

Along with stricter youth justice laws, the review also noted the efficiency of the courts for children on remand has reduced; the capacity of youth detention centres have not been met; the existing model doesn't minimise recidivism; and a lack of accountability transparency is hindering the development and implementation of solutions.

More troublingly, a child's family circumstances were revealed to be influencing bail decisions, meaning children were being kept incarcerated due to circumstances outside of their control.

Asked by reviewers for information on why bail was opposed in 30 sample cases, and why they believed bail conditions would not adequately mitigate the risk of reoffending, police pointed to a variety of factors.

These include the child's parents being intoxicated, a lack of parental supervision, family fighting, and family criminal history.

"A lack of accommodation or family functioning must not be the sole reason for keeping the child in custody and the assessment needs to be on the risk of reoffending and risk to the community or someone's safety," the report says.

"A number of children staying in watch houses for lengthy periods did not have stable accommodation or family support to facilitate their compliance with bail.

"Bail support options providing supervision and/or accommodation may help mitigate the immediate risks from family circumstances preventing bail."

The criminalisation of youth bail breaches - which also overrode the state's human rights act – has seen more children placed in detention facilities, leading to overcrowding and a 'necessity' to house them in adult watch houses.

Last month, National Indigenous Times reported children were often placed on highly restrictive or punitive bail conditions, such as 24-hour curfews in the same home or being unable to be a passenger in a car not driven by a parent or youth justice worker.

Even more disturbingly, one child was given a choice between prison and going to a home where they had previously been the victim of sexual assault.

In all these cases, leaving the home would result in an immediate breach of bail charge, and likely time spent in detention.

At the time, Maggie Munn from Change the Record said of watch house detainees: "What is truly horrifying is that almost 90 percent of the children held in police watch houses are on remand - meaning they haven't been convicted of any crime."

The review made several recommendations, including the Queensland Police and youth justice department improve the information recorded about the circumstances of a child's detainment, the full context behind bail and remand decisions, and the extent to which children's needs and rights are being met and upheld while in custody.

Commissioner Twyford said despite the acceptance that adult facilities were ill equipped for children and shouldn't be housing them, little progress had been made to mitigate it continuing to happen.

"There is broad consensus within government, the community, the judiciary, police and frontline workers that watch houses are not suitable places to hold children, yet I am seeing little improvement."

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